An interview with Virginia Albarracin
Posted by Mariana De Niz, on 13 September 2022
MiniBio: Virginia Albarracin is the Head of the Centre for Electron Microscopy of the National University of Tucumán and CONICET in Tucuman, Argentina, as well as a group leader focusing on investigating extremophiles. Virginia studied her BSc degree in Biology, and PhD degree in Biochemistry at the University of Tucuman, Argentina. During her PhD she worked at the University of Jena in Germany with CONICET and DAAD fellowships. As a postdoc she earned first a Fulbright Scholarship to work at the Center of Marine Biotechnology of the University of Maryland in Baltimore, US in the lab of Prof. Russell T. Hill. Later, a CONICET and a Marie Curie postdoctoral fellowship led her to work jointly in the lab of Dr. Maria Eugenia Farias at PROIMI in Tucuman, and with Prof. Wolfgang Gärtner at the Max Plank Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion in Mülheim, Germany. During her career, she has worked in various unique environments collecting bacteria for her research. Moreover, she has established various initiatives to promote gender equity in STEM disciplines in Argentina. She is committed to developing novel technologies to Argentina in the fields of EM and image analysis.
What inspired you to become a scientist?
Now in retrospect, I think there are two things that were fundamental for me: one is an Expo that takes place in Tucuman, where they show things relevant to industry and agriculture, and things that have to do with productivity. In this fair there were huge models of human bodies, into which one could walk, so you could enter the mouth and the digestive tract and see everything from the inside. I loved it because it was a chance to see what one can never see. What is hidden. I think this awoke my curiosity for biological phenomena and how things work. The second reason was that my dad used to buy a magazine of scientific communication called “Muy Interesante”, and in them I remember seeing electron microscopy images of conventional things around us. For instance, small bugs in dust or on a sofa. I only think about it now that I am in my position of Head of Unit, but I hadn’t realized how important those two things were for me, and how determining they were for me.
Moreover, in junior high school, we studied biology, and we started studying the cell – with all the structures, and this triggered my curiosity too. Around this time too, the genome project was under completion and I wanted to be part of this. I am very interested in human health, but I would never have been able to work with animals: only once in my career I did a course where I had to open the brain of rats and I almost fainted. This limited me a bit, but because I loved microscopes and microorganisms, this became my entry point to science. When I started University I joined a Faculty oriented towards nature, ecology and taxonomy. It has a museum associated to the Faculty, and it’s a reference point to naturists, taxonomists, and collectors. They organized field work to the countryside, but I really didn’t quite like this. My favorite setting was the lab, where I could observe microorganisms, work with DNA, and use microscopes.
You have a career-long involvement in cell biology, bacteria, and microscopy. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired you to choose these paths?
When I started my BSc at University, the two careers I was attracted to were Biology or Medicine, and at the time I felt Medicine wasn’t so convincing to me, while Biology was great. And then at the end of my 2nd year in Biology, I had a small professional crisis, because I didn’t know if research is what I wanted to do, so I started Medicine, which I am studying until now. I’ve been doing it little by little, because in the meantime I started working, I started traveling and so on. For Biology one needs to complete 25 subjects, while for Medicine you need to complete 50 – I’ve completed 45 – so it’s just 5 more to go. I hope to finish around March 2023. I don’t see myself in clinics, attending patients, but rather in diagnostics. It’s all linked to my interest with microscopy in fact.
Anyway, at the beginning of my degree, I told one of my Professors that I wanted to work on a project that involved humans. He was a Biochemist and he told me he knew someone who was working on paternity tests (at the time this was just being introduced in Tucuman). He suggested I do an internship in his lab – this was Dr. Carlos Abate. This was in the Planta Piloto de Procesos Industriales Microbiológicos (PROIMI), where I eventually did my PhD degree. He had just optimized many techniques for detection, and his work had a lot to do with microbiology and molecular biology. I did the internship there, and Dr. Abate suggested that I should apply to a fellowship to do a PhD. To get a fellowship would guarantee 5 years of salary and it was also a prestigious fellowship, which made me also very competitive. It was there that I was jointly doing the career in Medicine and the PhD. My PhD consisted on studying molecular systems of bacterial resistance to copper and heavy metals. These bacteria had been isolated from mines in Tucuman, and we wanted to understand them better to be able to use them in bioremediation. I saw the applicability of this project, and this caught my interest even further. Then came the crisis that hit Argentina in 2001 – we had 4 presidents in a single week, and I actually started my fellowship in 2002. My salary was diminished by a certain percentage – anyone depending on the state (including scientists, retired people, and so on) was affected, as a strategy of the government to control the crisis situation. I remember one situation where there were cuts to electricity in labs, and people would be frantically removing everything from freezers to rescue them before they would thaw. It was a terrible crisis and a terrible hit to science. Slowly, things started to improve: salaries started to increase, more personnel could be hired, I was able to go abroad to train, and one of the things that my PhD advisor proposed was to study Molecular mechanisms of bacterial resistance to copper. We saw that bacteria in media enriched in copper would be able to take it up. This gave us the idea to start using electron microscopy and it became a guiding thread in my career. This contact with electron microscopy in fact began a bit earlier. I was in one of the first years of my degree, and one of my teachers said that whoever got the best grades in Plant Sciences would be able to go to the electron microscope to observe leaves. The EM lab where this took place is in fact the one of which now I am Head. For me this was also an extraordinary experience. Now I can trace back this interest in EM still back to those pictures that I saw as a child in scientific magazines.
Moreover, I went to Jena during my PhD to work for 3 months in the Institute of Microbiology, directed by Prof. Dr. Erika Kothe., and Jena is of course a very important place for optics. Zeiss and Abbe are there. Without knowing, I went to ‘the’ place for microscopy. During some of my experiments , I noticed in TEM images granular structures in bacteria cytoplasm from cultures that had taken up copper, as opposed to those that hadn’t, but we weren’t able to demonstrate that these grains of higher density were actually copper. I looked for a technique that was already being used to study diseases related to copper (in animals for instance), and I adapted it for our studies of bacteria together with the staff from the EM core facility in Tucuman, the same I am directing now. In fact, I liked very much working there. Each time I went to the EM facility, I was always surprised with the organization of the lab. It was all perfectly organized. In my head, I had it clear that the molecular part, genomics, and images were important for my project. Because of these images, we were able to determine that the bacteria were accumulating copper. With the molecular techniques we hypothesized that it could be metallo-chaperones (proteins) which could capture the copper. At the time it was impossible to have the genome. Now we have the genome, and it is indeed what we had hypothesized. After this, I then went on to do a postdoc. I switched topics a bit, going into extremophiles in the Laguna de la Puna. First I went to the USA, to the centre of Marine Biotechnology in Maryland, Baltimore in the lab of Prof. Russell T. Hill. I was there for 4 months with a Fullbright scholarship. When I came back to Argentina, I joined the lab of Dr. Maria Eugenia Farias and immediately after, she proposed that I begin my postdoc by going to Germany for 6 months, to the Max Plank Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion in Mülheim, to the lab of Dr. Wolfgang Gärtner. Since then, I would be intermittently for 6 months in Germany and then 6 months in Argentina. At some point. Dr. Gärtner suggested I apply for a fellowship to be able to stay longer periods of time. I obtained a Marie Curie postdoctoral fellowship, which funded me for 2 years in Germany and 1 year in Argentina. During this time I focused more in the study of bacterial resistance to UV, and focused mostly on proteins, using conventional techniques at the time. For us it was difficult to produce proteins from these extremophiles, in concentrations high enough that they would be usable with these conventional tools, and to be able to do crystallography. Around 2010, I went to a conference where someone presented work about using EM to study protein structure, which I hadn’t imagined: for me, EM was used for tissues and cells, but not structural biology. And I decided I had to try this! In this talk, the speaker said that the future was the combination of crystallography and EM, and he was right. When I came back from Germany, Dr. Farias’ group had found stromatolites in these extreme conditions – this led to a media boom. La Puna has an environment that has been compared to that of Mars, or primitive Earth. These forms were similar to those in primitive Earth, and this was fascinating. We were able to study their particular layered organization using genomics and EM.
Can you tell us a bit about what you have found uniquely positive about becoming a researcher in Argentina, from your education years?
I think the degree of Biology showed me the big picture of the field as a whole. And in specific the degree I did in Tucuman really emphasized the connection between nature and humans covering all aspects on biodiversity, conservation and evolution. The degree in Biology has a lot of practicals, a lot of field work. The degree in Medicine is also very intense – from the first year you can work at a primary attention health centres. The last 2 years you have to do internships in rural settings, and do rotations in different specialties. It’s very complete. When I did my BSc, I didn’t have to do a thesis – now you need to do it at the end, in the final year. So it’s well-structured now, to become a researcher. In my times, we were encouraged to work already in some applied job. I for instance, started working as an assistant in an inorganic chemistry lab. In parallel, I worked with a professor who focused on taxonomy and was studying spiders. The chemists wanted me to do something related with water quality. I proposed to sample water in the same areas where I was capturing spiders. I used to do a lot of field work, in very remote areas. I would pick spiders and preserve them in formaldehyde. I kept them at home, and my mom would find it rather disturbing. Unfortunately in this place where I was sampling, the river was exhausted- it was destroyed.
I’ve always worked on thermophiles, and my interest towards this area arose since my education years. Speaking of extremophiles, I used to watch, when I was younger, documentaries on the International Space Station, and I really wanted to go there and do research. I still consider it, but I have an 8 year old son. I don’t know if I would take very high risks while he is young. For instance, Dr. Maria Eugenia Farias goes to expeditions to get the extremophiles, but I stopped going since my son was born. Perhaps when he is older, I will start doing field work and other risky things. CONICET has a ship for making campaigns in the entire Argentinean coast and even in Antarctica; I would love to sample and image extremophiles from these extreme settings too!
Once you chose microscopy as a profession or main discipline, can you expand more about how your career has progressed in this line?
When I was at high-school, during the biology class the teacher used to show us diagrams depicting the organelles inside the cell. Back then I found this already fascinating and I now realize it may have been the main stimulus to choose biology for the degree. Later, during my career, we have a subject called Histology, where we learn how to use microscopes, and how to prepare samples. We had a dedicated module for EM, I was already very interested in the amazing level of detail EM achieved. But when I did my PhD is when I fell definitely in love with microscopy. At PROIM, there was not too much instrumentation for imaging cells, we only have a regular optical microscope, I used to spend hours in the room just observing the several copper-resistant bacteria of our collection, subject of my thesis. With the years, the institute got a fluorescence microscope, but my experience with fluorescence microscopy is that it becomes mission impossible: at first we did not have enough money to buy the consumables for the assays. And when we finally did, the microscope was broken, the lamps did not function and it was very expensive to change it right away. So the easiest way to get nice pictures was to bring samples to the EM facility and try to develop methods there, at that time it was called Northwest EM laboratory (LAMENOA). I had a very nice reception by the director at that time “Taty” Winik, and the technicians Carolina Schlick and Alberto Andrade from whom I learned a lot. During my PhD thesis, I used EM not only to reveal copper deposits inside the bacterial cells, but also to image the bacteria colonization in soils contaminated with copper. During my postdoc, I also worked with samples in the EM lab to image the extremophiles ultrastructure. Apart from molecular methods, images helped us to understand how the extremophiles deal with multiple-extreme conditions in the Puna, especially UV. This apparently not-connected thread of events leads me to become the Head of the Unit in 2015; so far the best decision I made in my career. It was indeed a great way to improve my research track record, widening my collaborations and to become more recognized in the field. I got promoted twice in CONICET in only three years. Not only had I advanced my knowledge on cell biology of the Puna extremophiles. I also happened to be collaborating and networking with so many interesting scientists and in diverse fields, I am learning a lot from these projects and also having fun! We even connected art, heritage, history and microscopy. We designed outreach events with interventions of sculptures and historic buildings by 3D mapping EM images.
On the other hand, managing a core facility was a special challenge for me as it was a complete different way of working. Thus, I committed to learn better tools on how to manage a core facility in a proficient way; here in Argentina there is no tradition on capacity building respecting to core facility managers. So I started travelling around and visiting different core facilities in Europe such as the EMBL Heidelberg, the EM core facility of the Max-Planck for Carbon Research in Mülheim an der Ruhr, the EM center of the University of Jena, the EM core facility for material sciences in Univ. Leipzig, the ProVIS Centre for Chemical Microscopy at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig too, the Department of Structural Biology at the Max-Planck Institute of Biophysics in Frankfurt, the Center for Nanotechnology Innovation@NEST of the Italian Institute of Technology in Pisa. There I found amazing core leaders and scientists who were very generous in sharing their experiences in managing their Units and how research lines were executed there, including technology development. Later I was able to apply some of the things I learned there of course adapting them to our context, as the difference in financial support and instrumentation is abysmal. In the last years, I also started taking part of the Global Bioimaging Exchange of Experiences program; I also applied to a Shadowing that I am pending to perform at the EMBL; I found these great initiatives that we as Latin-American researchers need to take more advantage of.
Can you tell us a bit about your day-to-day work as head of the electron microscopy core facility?
I feel that, compared to other countries; Argentina is still in the dark ages with regards to electron microscopy applied to biological sciences. We don’t have a way to prepare samples by freeze-substitution for example. Volumetric methods are also not applied so far in any lab in Argentina. As a director I am trying to develop this area. The future of imaging is multi-dimensional, multi-modal and correlative. In Argentina, we really need to go in this direction. My job as a director of facility is a rollercoaster. You have to take care of equipment, supervise technicians and students while responding to user needs and demands. If something breaks in any of the microscopes, the minimum we sometimes have to pay long exceeds our modest budget in Argentinean pesos. It is also a problem to import pieces from abroad, and it usually takes several months. So that piece of equipment can stop our services for a long time. Most of the time we can get assistance (for instance, remotely), but I feel a lot of pressure to have all the equipment functional. We are providing services to hospitals and physicians, who need the EM images for the diagnosis of patients whose treatment depends on that. So we need to be available 24/7. In fact, we were the only EM lab in Argentina working full-time during the pandemic.
When I set up the microscopy lab, I wasn’t able, for a long time, to get my own research going. The job as Head of Unit is very taxing, and many times I don’t have time to sit down and write grants to get my own money. Not to mention the research papers!! Normally, I used to take care of this during my weekends. Another challenge which I’ve faced is that in Argentina sometimes things don’t happen unless the Head of lab, or the Head of unit gets involved and requests things. If a student or a technician asks, things don’t always happen. So this also demands my time. Otherwise, it’s an exciting job. I am able to collaborate with many researchers working on a plethora of topics, from parasitology to material science and archaeology. For instance, in Tucuman we have the museum where the Independence of Argentina was declared in 1816. Here we started studying biodeterioration of the material, and determining what are the microorganisms responsible for this. We have collected enough material to study the microorganisms and determine methods of conservation. So I have found myself now working on really new topics for me, considering that most of my expertise is on bacteria. We are also determining particles of air contamination: we are optimizing techniques to classify these particles, to see if it can eventually become a high-throughput method of air quality. Then there is a geologist working on the EM.
Because our services are also offered outside academia, our team also collaborated with the Department of Justice. The golden standard now for assessing gun-shot residues in skin, clothes or so on, is by scanning electron microscopy coupled with EDS (X-ray energy dispersion). Honestly, I felt a little as being in a CSI series, which I happened to be a fan of. In many occasions, I have to go to Court to declare as an expert witness in trials, with regards to the key test that proves a person may be guilty of murder.The idea of widening the horizons of the Unit is really to train people. Around the time I entered the Unit, only about 4 people knew how to use the equipment, and the Unit itself had undergone some tragic changes in leadership. Two directors passed away when they were very young, and the institute remained leaderless for a relatively extended period of time. Training people takes 1-2 years full time so they can work confidently with EM. So my big priorities beyond having efficient systems and organization within the unit, is to have enough competent human resources. In recent years, a lot of the personnel has switched because they switched countries or regions, so this is challenging. I want to establish a Unit which is not based solely on technical assistance, but research and development – which also makes the job much more appealing to the personnel of the unit of course. One of my dreams now is to make a cryo-revolution here, to make this available, as well as establishing CLEM. Hybrid techniques are now the future, and we want to do this. I want to better network with other labs, so that we can support each other and collaborate more easily. During the shut-down in 2020, we took the imitative to organize an online workshop series where all Units of EM in Argentina were invited to present their labs, services and associated research. It was a great success because the people showed a great interest in taking part of it and they were very eager to connect with others during these isolation times. Every Monday, two seminars were given and we had a lot of attendees. It was really great to see how much potential there is in Argentina, with trained people and with so many labs that even were pioneers in EM in Argentina. The conclusion of the seminar series was shared by all attendees: we need to dedicate more efforts in establishing a collaborative network for join initiatives.
Did you have many opportunities to interact with other Latin American groups, outside of Argentina?
I think networking in Latin America is not as good as it should/could be. There is room for opportunity. It’s very different from my experience in Europe or the USA, where there is enough funding. Here, every now and then we are able to obtain some funding to work with the neighboring countries mostly. This has been the case with Brazil, Uruguay and Chile. But it’s difficult because there is no system of formal collaboration or enough funding – even within Argentina. I am trying to make an inter-institute network through which we can exchange personnel and knowledge more easily. I had an intern from Peru, who came with some funding back in 2020. Fortunately, she recently asked for a scholarship from CONICET for a PhD, and so now she has started this with us. With her project we are using EM to study the relationship of soil microbes with plant roots. We have some exchanges also with colleagues from Brazil; Luciano, one of my technicians, did some training in the National Center for Structural Biology and Bioimaging in Rio de Janerio, hosted by Kildare Miranda and Wanderley de Souza, and I invited them and Rodrigo Portugal to present their work in workshops we organized in Argentina. I have also remained in touch with colleagues in EM core facilities in Uruguay and Chile I think to expansion of our network of contacts in Latinoamerica will be key for many things we want to establish here in Tucuman too, like cryo-EM and volumetric EM methods like FIB-SEM. In 2015 I thought about the 10-year goals that I wanted to achieve for the Unit. I think we have advanced and we are a reference centre in Argentina, but we haven’t achieved all the goals I wanted. We still have 4 more years! I want to renew some equipment too, because as you know in microscopy, not updating equipment results in quickly becoming obsolete.
Have you ever faced any specific challenges as an Argentinian researcher, working abroad?
I was proficient in English already when I started traveling. I just remember that the first few days after I first went to the USA, I had a big headache because it was very tiring to be speaking in English all day long. I also noticed that most places where I went (USA and Germany), these places are safer. I really enjoy being able to walk at night with the certainty that nothing will happen, which is not always the case in Argentina. I saw in one of my postdocs that some postdocs had several students and technicians helping them, and I didn’t. I don’t know if this was because I was Argentinian or because my project was not a main priority for the lab (or the one with main funding). But other than this, I don’t think I’ve faced major difficulties. Quite the opposite – sometimes: in Germany I realized there are a lot of programs that target the gender gap. There are fellowships and programs to which only women can apply- they are very competitive and give plenty of funding. There is also funding for childcare! For instance I am currently in Germany, and a nanny (from funded initiatives) is taking care of my son. Seeing all this support led me to question myself on why they do have these initiatives in Europe but not in Argentina, and that perhaps this is something we should be working towards. In this sense, it opened my eyes.
Who are your scientific role models (both Argentinian and foreign)?
I have tried to look for role models in people who have a similar life to mine. I admire people not so much because of what they have achieved in the lab, but on their attitude towards life. One can be very bright and have many ideas, but one can still lose one’s path and stay stranded or lose one’s way. I have tried to find role models like women close to me. They include Dr. Elisa Colombo, who is a physicist – she has been director of the CONICET Headquarters in Tucuman., the only woman Director so far. She treated people very well. You could learn from the human side too. I personally wouldn’t like that a student remembers me as a grumpy supervisor who only complains and demands. I prefer that the student feels good and gains confidence and other abilities – there is enough of bad treatment in academia, which leads to people feeling like they are being used, or like irrelevant links in a big chain rather than people who matter. I try that in my lab we have a good research culture, which involves the personal aspect too. I encourage communication, teamwork, commitment, responsibilities, etc.
Dr. Maria Eugenia Farias was also great – she was generous with me – when I left her lab I was able to take with me the research line I had been working on. She was very supportive. I know cases whereby the postdoctoral advisors are not supportive in this sense – but instead very territorial.
And then I have to mention Marie Curie of course. I had this fellowship, and she is a good example of the glass ceiling we face. I wonder often if, despite being so bright, she would have had the same opportunities had she not been married to Pierre Curie. It’s unfair if you think about it. She could sit at the table of the great scientists because her husband opened the door. And how many women are there who were never given a chance, or lost opportunities, because no one supported them? The opposite example of this is Rosalyn Franklin, who gave her life for science, and all the merit and all the history honours 3 men who were unkind to her and even took credit for some of her findings and her work.
In microscopy, a role model is Fernando Stefani – he is a great microscopist and he does research and development in Argentina. I also follow the work of Mario Borgnia, an Argentinean scientist leading a CryoEM core facility in the USA, who has been helping us improve our methods, and has already given much training to my group. He was also an invited speaker in CryoEM workshops we organized in Tucuman. On a world scenario, I admire the work of Yannick Schwab at the EMBL, I visited his lab in Heidelberg in 2016 and then he also visited us in Tucuman. His management work at the EM core facility was an inspiring model to start organizing my Unit in Tucuman. Regarding my research lines, I follow with great interest the work on prokaryotic cell biology performed by the Jensen lab in Caltech and a former student from him –Ariane Briegel) who is now a Professor in Leiden. She applies cryoET to understand how bacteria sense and respond to the environment. It will be a dream comes true if we can do this for our Puna extremophiles some day.
What is your opinion on gender balance in Argentina, given current initiatives in the country to address this important issue? How has this impacted your career?
When I started my degree, sometimes me and other women would receive some strange comments and we wondered if we received these comments directly or because you’re a woman. We had a professor that would call all women ‘princess’ during class. This was awful. Later, in a lab I joined as an intern, one of the PIs would say ‘we have to get more men, otherwise the lab environment becomes complicated’. We would laugh about these comments, but not really. Perhaps also when you’re younger some forms of micro-aggression or micro-misogyny affect you, but at this age you’re not quite sure if it’s you or if they meant something in a specific way, but it makes you feel bad. Only in retrospect you realize this is wrong. Now I am making an effort to remember, but I think many of us block these aggressions. And these aggressions also come from women sometimes. I used to play football when I was younger – I was a pioneer in women football (this year, the team is celebrating its 25th anniversary), and I had a woman professor who would always call me ‘the football player’, I feel in a way that was demeaning. I am not sure if she would have said the same to a man. Fortunately as a Head of Unit I haven’t faced clear discrimination, but perhaps this is largely because my predecessors were women too. So it’s not something new for the collaborators or group leaders with whom I interact. But it was new for the technicians -mostly men- to have a younger or equal age boss. I feel that for some of them it was difficult at first to follow my requests or requirements right away. In Tucuman, 65% of researchers are women, but you do see the glass ceiling effect: the minister, the Chancellor, the deans, the institute directors are mostly men, with about 15% of them being women.
Beyond this, I personally have been in meetings with a commission (all of which were women), and I have felt a bit of prejudice is related to age and gender. I presented a project with initiatives to become the Head of the Unit, and when I presented this project, some comments I received were that I was very young (I was 37 years old when this happened), that I wouldn’t be able to grow in my CONICET career because of my responsibilities as Head of Unit. The director of this commission believed in me, but various members of the commission were against this appointment because I was an assistant researcher (in Argentina there are various levels: assistant, adjunct, independent, principal and superior researcher). To lead a Unit you are supposed to be an independent researcher or above. Fortunately I was encouraged and backed up by the leader of the commission. I am not sure if a man’s abilities would have been questioned because of his age. Later on, various members of the commission told me that I was doing a great job. Sometimes one has to believe in the beauty of their dreams, even if others do not trust them.
Another thing I faced was that if I was wearing sporty clothes, people who were visiting the facility for the first time when I received them at the door would ask me “who is the Head of Unit?”. When I would say it was me, they would say they thought the Head of Unit was a man or someone older. Perhaps there’s an expectation of how a Head of Unit should look. Another thing that would bother me a lot, which in fact many people would say, was that whenever I proposed to do new things, they would say “you have so many things in your plate. You have a child!”. I find these comments frustrating – the assumption that my capacity is questioned simply because of the fact that I have a child.
Maybe because of all these “minor comments” doubting my abilities as a qualified scientist, I decided to get involved in activism regarding better representation and participation for women in science in Argentina, and in my province in particular. Now all these subjects are very well addressed. Most people are aware (or should be!) that women in general face discrimination and violence; right now there are many programs promoted by the national government aiming at reducing the glass ceilings such as longer paid maternity leaves, extension of times for grant applications or reports, violence observatory offices, dedicated prizes for women in science, among many other valuable actions. But ten years ago, when I returned from Germany, nobody was realizing, nor even discussing this issue. I then created the initiative Ciencia con M, to perform outreach events to portray the amazing work women in science were doing in Tucuman. We also organized activities for promoting scientific vocations in STEM fields such as talks in the schools, “Girls Science Day” in the Unit, and audiovisual materials for YouTube and social networks.
What is your favourite type of microscopy and why?
SEM! I feel this methodology is now more likely to grow here, given the current opportunities we have in Tucuman. There are now a lot of options for SEM, even approaching the type of information that can be obtained in TEM. But TEM microscopes are intimidating – too many knobs. Or very costly, such as the CryoEM/CryoET. I like the possibilities of doing volumetric EM. One can do this with TEM but it is much more laborious. I think new developments in SEM are making it an even more attractive type of microscopy.
What is the most extraordinary thing you have seen by microscopy? An eureka moment for you?
For me the first eureka moment was when I found those deposits of copper within bacteria – the bacteria really had like a “belly” full of copper, with a technique I was able to adapt from different fields. I was super excited to see that the negative control (grown in media without copper) did not have this “belly”. This was the beginning of an exciting project in my PhD where I was able to show that copper accumulates in these bacteria and that they can be used in bioremediation. We even got it on the cover of the journal in which we published the article. I framed this cover back in 2008. Now I show it proudly in the wall of my office. And then the second eureka moment was the stromatolites: seeing them in different layers from la Puna. Each layer was filled with different microorganisms, some of which were beautiful, like the diatoms (algae). We were able to see how some of these microorganisms became associated with minerals. And how some diatoms harbour bacteria. We now are linking, layer by layer, the meta-genomic information with the images we saw down the microscope. And the third eureka moment is related to the bacteria we isolated from the stromatolite. We studied how these poly-extremophiles were able to form biofilms, and we found special structures of communication within cells, which have thicker structures than pili, and with versatile organization. This had caused some controversy, with a lab in Israel proposing that these are nanotubes that serve to communicate and exchange metabolites (not just DNA). This is a paradigm shift regarding methods of communication, especially in extremophiles. Conversely, a lab in the Czech Republic suggested that these tubes are generated by the bacteria as a result/process of cell death. We are trying to understand this with the imaging methods we have.
What is an important piece of advice you would give to future Argentinian scientists? and especially those specializing as microscopists?
You should think of images as data, not pictures. Images are a world of data. Think about the career as a microscopist as a data scientist. I suggest you study statistics, physics, mathematics, in addition to microscopy and biology. Get involved in learning artificial intelligence and machine learning early on too – it’s the future of microscopy, and keeps gaining momentum. I feel most careers have ignored image analysis as a discipline, and it’s vital – so capacity building is required at the moment in Argentina in this sense.
Where do you see the future of science and microscopy heading over the next decade in Argentina, and how do you hope to be part of this future?
I think it will be essential to build better networks. We have limitations in the region, which could be addressed with better networking. In Argentina specifically, for example, this could start with improving and strengthening infrastructure in key centers and making these platforms available to everyone in the country and even in the region, with our neighbors in Uruguay, Chile, Brazil. This is proving difficult because everyone wants their own piece of equipment in their institute. But with limited resources, this is not realistic. In terms of image analysis, I think there are not many trained personnel, and a priority should be capacity building to develop this strength in the region too. We know it can be done, because many ‘omics’ platforms are working efficiently in Argentina. It can be done for imaging too.
Beyond science, what do you think makes Argentina a special place to visit and go to as a scientist?
Tucuman is great! This is where the independence of Argentina was declared. So it is a historical city with many cultural attractions. Not to mention Buenos Aires: it is a vibrant metropolis, very similar in architecture and night activities with nothing to envy many European main capitals. Also, we have a huge natural biodiversity across the country, and a great diversity of landscapes: we have mountains, jungles, woods in Patagonia, gardens, seas, etc. We have the 2nd tallest mountain on Earth in the South Andes – the Aconcagua. It’s suitable for any sort of outdoor activity you might like – hiking, cycling, climbing, swimming. And then there’s its people – people are very welcoming: as a foreigner you can immediately establish a good relationship and Argentinians take care of you. You might lack a thing or two in the labs, but you won’t lack a great itinerary, barbecue, and other attentions and gestures from the hosts 🙂 I think this is something shared among Latin Americans.